A friend once heard a therapist say: “We tend to overvalue the people who reject us.” And though your mom isn’t exactly rejecting you, criticism can feel a lot like rejection. But here's the good news: There's so much freedom that comes from placing your value elsewhere—like on your dad, especially during this challenging time with his health.
Moving forward, before you arrive at their house, make a point of reminding yourself that your company matters to your dad and that he matters to you. Then remind yourself that what your mom says is related to who she is, and not to who you are. Once there, instead of doing the same frustrating dance you two do when she makes these comments—trying to set a boundary, explaining that she’s hurting your feelings, or perhaps arguing with her assessment about whether you really are overweight or your hair looks better down than in a ponytail—try doing something new. Which is: Muster your compassion for her anxiety, as hard as that may be.
So when your mom brings up your appearance, you might respond, “I appreciate how concerned you are about me, Mom. It’s nice to know how much you care. I hope to find a great partner someday too, and you know what would be the most helpful thing you can do? If you can mention the things you value about me, that will give me the best chance of finding a partner who values me, too.” If she continues making critical comments, simply take some deep breaths to calm yourself, then walk over and give her a big hug and say, “I’m sorry you’re so worried, Mom. I care about you, too, so I hope you’ll find a way to worry less, especially with everything going on with Dad.” And then you change the subject, or if she escalates the criticisms, muster that compassion again and say, “It breaks my heart to see you so anxious, Mom,” then exit the room and go visit with your dad.
The point is to not engage in any discussion about your appearance—not a word—but instead to empathize with the maternal anxiety that’s fueling her not-so-useful “assistance.” Over time, she’ll see that she’s criticizing without an audience, and though the comments probably won’t stop entirely, they’ll likely decrease significantly, because the criticisms have nowhere to land. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to respond like this consistently—the strategy won’t be effective if you go back to responding emotionally in the moment or to trying to engage in a discussion around your appearance. For future visits, you can shorten your response to a brief, “Okay, Mom, thanks for caring,” or even, “Oh, Mom, I’m sorry you’re still so anxious,” and then shift your focus over to your dad, whose company you can enjoy. Fortunately, you get to leave at the end of the visit, while she has to live with her worry. It’s up to you to remember to leave that worry in its rightful place—with her, 500 miles away.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.